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Narragansetts plead not guilty in Rhode Island smoke shop raid

SOUTH KINGSTON, R.I. - Narragansett Chief Sachem Matthew Thomas and six tribal members pleaded not guilty Jan. 23 in district court to charges in connection to a controversial smoke shop raid on their tribal land three years ago.

''Frankly, this is an important enough issue that it ought to be decided in court in front of a jury,'' William Devereaux, the tribe's new attorney, said in an Associated Press report.

At issue is the question of tribal immunity at the time of the police raid.

The seven tribal members were arrested in July 2003, when around 30 state troopers and a canine unit stormed the tribe's reservation on a search warrant to shut down its tax-free cigarette shop. The tribal members tried to protect their property and the ensuing struggle was televised nationwide. The police claimed the tribe's sale of tax-free cigarettes was illegal and shut down the shop.

Following the arrest, tribal members were arraigned under various charges, including disorderly conduct, resisting arrest, assaulting a police officer and simple assault. They were freed on bail.

The tribe challenged the state police in court, claiming its sovereign rights had been violated. In November, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear the tribe's appeal of a 1st Circuit Court ruling that gave the state jurisdiction on the tribe's 1,800-acre reservation. Soon after the denial, Rhode Island District Court Judge Frank Cenerini ordered the re-arraignment.

At the court appearance, Thomas and three other defendants, Bella Noka, Thawn Harris and Hiawatha Brown, were charged with misdemeanor offenses including assaulting a police officer. Adam Jennings, Randy Noka and John Brown were charged with disorderly conduct and resisting arrest.

The offenses carry a maximum penalty of one year in prison and a $1,000 fine, Devereaux said.

Deputy Attorney General Gerald Coyne said private property owned by the Narragansett Tribe is no different from private property elsewhere in Rhode Island.

''You don't have any right to resist State Police if they come on that property with a warrant,'' the AP quoted him as saying.

But Devereaux said the case is not ''normal'' in any way.

''There are a lot of significant issues regarding tribal sovereignty,'' he said. ''These events happened on a federally recognized Indian reservation, and I know a decision has come down from the 1st Circuit Court of Appeals regarding the state's right to enforce state laws on the reservation; but there are also issues as to what the tribal members honestly believed, at the time this incident happened, were their legal rights as tribal members of a federally recognized tribe on federal Indian land.''

The Narragansetts' legal struggles to maintain sovereign immunity on their tribal lands is being closely watched all over Indian country, where tribes are concerned about a wave of court cases that are eroding tribal sovereignty in favor of state jurisdiction.

One of the many curiosities of the smoke shop case is why the state issued a search warrant to enter the smoke shop when they already had evidence that the tribe was selling tax free cigarettes there, Devereaux said.

''They had a state trooper go in undercover and buy tax-free cigarettes. There were signs on the smoke shop saying it was a smoke shop and you could buy cigarettes there without paying state taxes. They had the evidence, so one ponders why they needed a search warrant, which is usually for gaining evidence of a crime. Selling cigarettes without a permit is a petty misdemeanor in Rhode Island,'' Devereaux said.

Devereaux said the best thing would be for the state to dismiss the smoke shop case and for the tribe to dismiss its civil rights suit against the state. The tribe's suit was filed in U.S. District Court and alleges that Rhode Island Gov. Donald Carcieri, state Attorney General Patrick Lynch, five state police administrators and eight troopers violated members' constitutional rights.

Dismissing the case ''has never been part of the state's thinking,'' Michael Healey, a spokesman for the attorney general, told Indian Country Today.

''We plan to prosecute these defendants in the same way we would prosecute any defendants in a similar position charged with cases that were referred to our office by the state police. We believe that probable cause exists to charge the defendants and we'll prosecute them accordingly,'' Healey said.

The state will not consider dropping the smoke shop case in exchange for the tribe dropping its civil suit, Healey said.

''The civil case is a civil case and the criminal case is a criminal case. When the 1st Circuit Court of Appeals said that the state has jurisdiction on the settlement lands, that should have put an end to the tribe's civil suit, in our judgment; but it didn't, so we'll be filing a motion to dismiss the civil suit shortly,'' Healy said.

Devereaux, who grew up in Rhode Island, said the state has always taken an unfavorable position toward the Narragansetts.

''Unfortunately, I can say that in history the state of Rhode Island has taken a very narrow view of the sovereignty of the Narragansett Indian Tribe, and that goes all the way back to a unilateral decision by legislators in 1878 to disestablish the tribe,'' he said. ''In other words, a bunch of powerful white men got together and said, 'We're going to declare the Narragansetts never existed.'

''I don't think anyone who grew up on Rhode Island ever thought there wasn't a Narragansett Indian Tribe. ... They have a pretty rich heritage.''